Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Dornburg Poems

Goethe left Weimar on July 7, in order to avoid the burial of Carl August, and traveled to Dornburg, where he stayed until September 11, 1828, in the "Renaissance castle," the southmost of the three Dornburg castles. All three stood on the edge of steep slopes overlooking the Saale valley.

The diary entry of his first morning: "Saw early at dawn the valley and its rising fog [or, perhaps, haze]" (Früh in der Morgendämmerung das Thal und dessen aufsteigende Nebel). While thinking about botany and reading many works by botanists, contemporary and past, he was often looking down at the valley below. There must have been a series of terraces like those pictured here (courtesy of Achim Lemweil), connecting the castles, because on July 10 he reports that he made a tour of all of them (Ich ging zum erstenmal die Terrassen durch)
I was reminded of his report, in Poetry and Truth, of climbing to the top of the cathedral at Strassburg on his first day in the Alsatian town, supposedly to cure himself of his fear of heights.

The terraces recur frequently in his diary during the stay at Dornburg (e.g., "Early morning walk on the terrace"), along with many entries about weather and barometric conditions. Here are a few, which surely played a role in the two Dornburg poems he would compose:

On the 12th of July: "At about 5 a.m. a universal, thick, widespread haze, extending high in the atmosphere" (Gegen fünf Uhr allgemeiner dichter, hoch in die Atmosphäre verbreiteter Nebel).

On July 26: "I walked on the terraces by light (leidlich) wind and alternating cloud cover until about 8 a.m., when cloud cover and wind increased."

 On July 27: "After midnight full moonlight, valley completely clear. Only over Colmsdorf a heavy, flat mass of fog directly below the moon" (Nach Mitternacht voller Mondenschein, ganz klares Thal. Nur über Colmsdorf eine starke, flach gezogene Nebelmasse unmittelbar unter dem Monde).

On August 17: "The barometer rose by seven points [Linien; I'm unsure which system he used] and put an end to the storms. Broken clouds were suspended in the sky, the blue shone through."

On August 18: "Rose before sunrise. The valley was completely clear. The poet's expression: 'holy dawn was experienced' [heilige Frühe, a play on 'heilige Ruhe,' the Lord's day of rest]. Now the play of haze began its activity in the valley [Nun fing das Nebelspiel im Thale seine Bewegung an], which, with the southwest wind, lasted perhaps an hour and, except for a few thin strips of cloud, dissolved into total clarity."

On August 25, he noted the rising and progress of the full moon: "Schöner Aufgang und Fortschritt des Vollmondes." It was on this day that he wrote the first of the two poems associated with Dornburg. John Williams (who has written a life of Goethe) calls "To the Full Moon Rising" a "nocturnal poem" forming "an intimate dialogue between self and moon":

Willst du mich sogleich verlassen?
Warst im Augenblick so nah!
Dich umfinstern Wolkenmassen
Und nun bist du gar nicht da.

Doch du fühlst, wie ich betrübt bin,
Blickt dein Rand herauf als Stern!
Zeugest mir, daß ich geliebt bin,
Sei das Liebchen noch so fern.

So hinan denn! hell und heller,
Reiner Bahn, in voller Pracht!
Schlägt mein Herz auch schmerzlich schneller,
Überselig ist die Nacht.

(A translation can be found at Poem Hunter.)

Williams calls the second poem, dated September 1828, a "diurnal poem," one based on "sharp optical observation of forms and colors, moving in unbroken (though obscurely constructed) syntax from start to finish." Both poems, I think, combine Goethe's "symbolic vision" of things with the observations of atmospheric phenomena, made throughout the day, as noted in his diary entries.

Früh, wenn Tal, Gebirg und Garten
Nebelschleiern sich enthüllen,
Und dem sehnlichsten Erwarten
Blumenkelche bunt sich füllen,

Wenn der Äther, Wolken tragend,
Mit dem klaren Tage streitet,
Und ein Ostwind, sie verjagend,
Blaue Sonnenbahn bereitet,

Dankst du dann, am Blick dich weidend,
Reiner Brust der Großen, Holden,
Wird die Sonne, rötlich scheidend,
Rings den Horizont vergolden.

Here follows Christopher Middleton's translation, which, however, does not replicate the original syntax, with its series of subordinate clauses, reminiscent of Werther's May 10 letter:

To veils of mist in morning light
Disclosed are garden, valley, hill,
And cups of flowers with colours bright
To the most ardent longing fill.

Ether, in the clouds it bears,
Quarrels with the candid day,
And east wind, for the sun, prepares
A blue path, chasing them away.

With pure heart thank the mild great one,
With moving gaze the scene behold,
Then will the reddish setting sun
Ring the horizon round with gold.

As John Williams has remarked in another context (Goethe Handbuch I, 498), both poems draw on a dense arsenal of motifs from Goethe's oeuvre, especially the symbolism of his late work -- sun/moon, day/night, light/darkness, clarity/haze or fog -- though light motifs (sun, moon, stars) are present in Goethe's earliest lyric imagery. Moonlight as an occasion for lovers to think of one another can be found in his letters to Charlotte von Stein. Goethe sent the first poem, on the full moon, to Marianne von Willemer in October 1828, thus reminding her of the evenings they had spent together in Frankfurt over a decade earlier. Still, the diary entries indicate that this affinity for natural phenomena was not merely a matter of poetic convention, but was one arising from life-long observation.

The above photo was taken at sunset over the Hudson River in Manhattan. Like Goethe, I am fond of cloud phenomena.

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